President Munson's 2023 Volunteer Leadership Summit speech

President David Munson delivered an address Oct. 13 for RIT's first-ever Volunteer Leadership Summit, part of Brick City Homecoming and Family Weekend. Below is the text of his speech:

Good morning! To all our volunteer leaders, welcome to Brick City Homecoming and Family Weekend! We have an amazing agenda for you today in what I believe will be a Brick City celebration for the ages.

First, I am going to review some of our most recent university accomplishments. And then I will lay out some of the challenges, opportunities, and vision we have for our bright future. But before I do all that, we need some historical context for how RIT elevated to where it is today — one of the top universities in the nation working at the intersection of technology, the arts, and design.

Let’s start with President Al Simone, who joined RIT in 1992. At that time, RIT had just one Ph.D. program — Imaging Science, the first of its kind in the nation. Under Al’s leadership, we added doctoral programs in microsystems engineering, computing and information sciences, and color science. We formed the Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, now our largest college. We also opened our first global campus in Dubrovnik, Croatia. And we built facilities like the one where you sit today, the Gordon Field House … and Al approved the move to Division I men’s hockey.

Then, President Bill Destler took the reins from Al and extended the path with a focus on creativity and innovation. In 2008, we opened a campus in Dubai, and we held our first Imagine RIT: Creativity and Innovation Festival, now a tradition and showcase for the ingenuity of our students and faculty. Under Bill, we also built the Golisano Institute of Sustainability, MAGIC Center, and the Gene Polisenni Center, after we also moved women’s hockey to Division I.

I am sure people were cautious and nervous when many of these decisions were being contemplated. Do we need these things? How will we pay for them? But what would RIT be today without these Ph.D. programs? Our global campuses? Our world-class facilities? Presidents Simone and Destler took calculated risks, and we must continue doing the same.

President Simone could not be with us today, but President Destler, would you please stand and be recognized for all you have done to propel RIT forward!

Today, we are building on the foundation laid by these two gentlemen and their predecessors.

We have no ambition to imitate any other institution. For us, it’s all about creativity and innovation in every discipline, and in removing the barriers between disciplines. We're recruiting students that perhaps would not have chosen to attend RIT in the past. It’s because of things we offer outside the classroom. I’ve pushed hard on the notion of experiential learning, which includes co-op, but also includes a lot of other things. We want our students to have an international experience. We want our students to have a start-up company. We want our students to be on a project team. And we want our students, in general, to become citizens of the world.

RIT enrollment at our Henrietta campus is now 16,500 students. We were in high demand with a record number of undergraduate applications for our incoming fall class. We are seeing a higher-quality pool of applicants, based on standard measures such as GPAs, rank in class, and leadership traits. Our entering class is the most well-rounded and academically prepared ever at RIT. Their average high school GPA was a record 93, and 60 students graduated first in their class. 36 percent of the incoming class are women — also a record for RIT.  And by the way, women students succeed at a higher rate in college than their male counterparts. We also continue to see gains with underrepresented AALANA populations, now 18 percent of the total enrollment, also a record.

We are truly a global university with more than 3,000 international students from 103 countries on the Henrietta campus. At our global campuses in China, Croatia, Dubai, and Kosovo, our enrollments continue to increase as we add new programs. This fall, we are at a record high of more than 3,500 at our international locations.

Behind these numbers are amazing students with diverse interests who come together to grow and thrive. They are thriving by getting involved in 300+ clubs and student organizations. They are thriving by interacting with cultures different from their own. They are thriving by competing against the best from across the globe and bringing home top prizes at national and international collegiate competitions. They are thriving by landing co-ops, internships, and other forms of experiential learning to find and develop their passions. And they are thriving by becoming successful alumni with rewarding careers and fulfilling lives outside of work.

I can say I've heard from alumni in my travels that in decades gone by, this was a transactional place. Pay your tuition. Go to class. Drive home at night. Get a good education. Go get a job. Check the box.

But today the vibe is completely different on campus. We have amazing spaces for creators and makers. We have coffee shops! And our students wear RIT sweatshirts and gear with pride. For this generation, it’s about more than just getting a job. With the great education we provide, our students know they will land good jobs. Most receive multiple job offers. Yet today’s students seek more, and they intend to change the world in a positive way.

The outside world knows who we are now. And that means we are going up against a more competitive league of universities. If you didn’t notice, we scheduled Notre Dame for our homecoming men’s hockey game!

National and international awareness of RIT’s reputation is on the rise and spreading to prospective students and parents of prospective students, as well as being noticed by our 145,000 alumni, donors, and other university stakeholders. The Division of Marketing and Communications is producing incredible work online and in print using video and photography, and more. And their collaboration with the Division of Enrollment Management is getting noticed and achieving impressive results as we tell the story of RIT across the globe.

Let’s talk about our elevation in another arena. Greatness is bringing goodness to the world through research and discovery. We had yet another record year in sponsored research awards, attaining $94 million, as we move closer to our Strategic Plan goal of $100 million by 2025. Some key areas of investigation include nanotechnology, optics and imaging science, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, and growth in life sciences and health fields. Many of these awards were funded by national agencies such as NSF ($16.5 million), the Department of Defense ($14.5 million), and the NIH ($8.1 million) as well as large awards from NASA and the Department of Energy. We also received $14 million in research awards from the state of New York.

Once again, we set a record for the value of proposals submitted this past year at $325 million — a 23 percent jump — as we continue our upward trajectory as a student-centered research university. Thank you and congratulations to our faculty and students involved in this endeavor to create new knowledge.

Yes, RIT is appropriately taking its place on the international stage.

A few examples:

We are one of six U.S. universities named as part of an international USA-Japan partnership that was announced this past May at the G7 Summit in Japan. This effort is being led by Micron Corp., which has already committed to invest $100 billion over the next 20 years to construct a new megafab facility outside Syracuse, N.Y.  The objective is to focus on improving competitiveness in computer chip design, development, and manufacturing here in the United States.

Governors Island, a historic site in New York Harbor will be the home to a new world-leading climate solutions center that will position New York City as a global leader in addressing one of the most pressing issues of our time. RIT is part of “The New York Climate Exchange”, a first-of-its-kind consortium, bringing public and private higher education institutions and global companies like IBM and Moody’s together. The goal is huge: Develop and deploy effective solutions to our global climate crisis. Sponsored by the New York City Mayor’s Office and the Trust for Governors Island, The Exchange was awarded to a consortium selected through a highly competitive process. RIT is a proud higher education partner, joining other prestigious institutions including Stony Brook University, Duke, Georgia Tech, Oxford, and the University of Washington.

Just last week, we announced $500,000 in funding for our ESL Global Cybersecurity Institute from the Google Cybersecurity Clinic Fund. And on the other side of the globe, RIT Dubai announced a partnership with MasterCard to foster talent and advance Artificial Intelligence innovation globally.

In terms of academic portfolio, you may know that RIT’s strategic plan calls for adding six to 12 new Ph.D. programs and conferring 50 doctoral degrees per year by 2025. The university conferred a record 69 Ph.D. degrees during commencement in May. Today, RIT enrolls more than 400 Ph.D. students in 12 Ph.D. programs.

This includes the Saunders College of Business, which just welcomed its first cohort of students into its new Ph.D. in business administration.

We have two more doctoral programs on the way. A year from now, we will launch a new physics Ph.D. program. Also in 2024, the College of Liberal Arts will introduce a new doctoral degree in cognitive science, which is a joint program with four other colleges on campus.

So, we will soon be at 14 Ph.D. programs. Again, thank you Al and Bill for taking calculated risks. And we are not stopping … We are expanding our research footprint to accommodate the university’s growing research portfolio by constructing the RIT Research Building. Construction of a modern research facility has been underway since mid-summer. The facility will provide more laboratory space in science, computing, and engineering. Occupancy is expected in fall of 2024.

Opportunities abound for this university. Let me briefly outline where we see RIT’s role in the future of health care:


  • Healthcare is the single largest employer sector in the United States and accounts for about 20 percent of the nation’s GDP.
  • Our aging population utilizes healthcare services 3 times more than younger generations.

There are enormous workforce shortages in healthcare professions including nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and other areas. These are major opportunities for growth in the College of Health Sciences and Technology.

So, looking ahead, our College of Health Sciences and Technology is developing doctoral programs in Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy. We also are planning a Nursing BSN program as we scope out our strategy. These efforts are leveraging our partnerships with Rochester Regional Health. As healthcare demands surge, RIT can be an active player in contributing to the healthcare system locally, nationally, and globally. There is much work to do, but the opportunities in this arena are huge for RIT.

RIT is accustomed to audacious goals. But again, it’s all about calculated risks. For six years — even amidst the global pandemic — the RIT community kept busy brainstorming, conceptualizing, designing, problem solving, collaborating, and building a new place where creativity and innovation can come to life.

We engineered the largest project in our history with one timeframe in mind: Fall 2023. Our time has arrived! The doors are open to the SHED (Student Hall for Exploration and Development) where we enable our students to reach their full potential. We are transforming RIT by building places and spaces for thinkers, creators, and makers unlike any other university in the nation. Big ideas can turn into reality. And that message is energizing our student body.

From morning classes into the evening extracurriculars, the SHED is the new heartbeat of the campus. I am confident that incredible things will be produced and invented in the SHED. And I’m sure some of those things will form the basis for student start-up companies.

RIT is more than about taking five courses each semester and working as hard as you can to get As. The SHED is allowing our students to think laterally, to be creative, and to apply what they've learned in the classroom to innovate and solve real problems.

RIT is a university where engineers and scientists can pursue the performing arts, techies can tackle the humanities, and artists learn to code. To that end, more than 500 new students received a Performing Arts Scholarship this fall, bringing the number of Performing Arts Scholars to more than 1,800 students.

We also recently began construction on a 750-seat music performance theater designed to support musical theater productions at RIT. This venue is expected to open in 2025. I envision that the entire RIT community will have an opportunity to engage with this “making” facility, be it as an actor, singer, dancer; or building sets, programming displays; designing costumes; or working on sound, lighting, or stage crew.

In the performing arts, NTID has served as our inspiration. The performing arts are a very important part of the deaf and hard-of-hearing culture, and it has been an important part of what has been offered historically at NTID. NTID’s Department of Performing Arts recently finished a major facelift. The costume shop, scene shop, and dance studio have been expanded and upgraded, and current department offices, dressing rooms, the green room, and the 1510 theater were rebuilt. Panara Theatre at NTID will be reopening this fall with newfound glory.

Other construction projects you will see around campus include:

Max Lowenthal Hall: The expansion project for our Saunders College of Business is in its finishing stages. We expect completion at the end of this year. This will nearly double the building’s footprint and will offer cutting-edge teaching and learning spaces, opportunities for innovative research, state-of-the-art event and collaboration spaces, as well as renovations to existing spaces.

Tiger Stadium: Beginning in spring of 2024, we will begin construction of a stadium complex featuring new seating, locker rooms, concessions, and a press box. By the way, we have a spot available for your name!

We have earmarked $50 million for renovations in the residence halls. This includes adding air conditioning where needed and updating hallways, restrooms, and lounges. This is a multi-year project with work occurring during summers, and we made a lot of progress this past summer.

We also are designing our future as we are charting what this campus will look like in the next 25 to 50 years with a new Campus Plan. This is a long-term planning document that provides a conceptual layout to guide future growth and development on our 1,300 acres. Themes of the Campus Plan include densification of the central core of the campus, creation of a new Half Mile that will parallel our Quarter Mile, moving the loop road to the north, conversion of parking lots to parking decks, and making better use of our natural environment. The plan also identifies sites for future buildings, whether they be residence halls, research facilities, or classroom buildings.

The plan helps paint a picture. We have recent graduates, current students, and future Tigers not even born yet who will be sitting in your seats someday years from now. Let’s make them proud of us.

We would not be where we are today if not for Transforming RIT: The Campaign for Greatness. We officially surpassed our $1 billion goal in March.

You have my deepest appreciation and gratitude for all that we have done to achieve our greatness. I want to emphasize that we sailed across the finish line with momentum. So, while we completed the campaign on June 30th, we are just getting started for the next chapter as we have identified many new friends of RIT. Transforming RIT involved nearly 55,000 donors, of which 39,000 were new donors.

$1 billion plus: Thank you! We did it!

But we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that we face challenges and strong headwinds.

War, climate change, natural disasters, social unrest, a dysfunctional government, high interest rates—it is stressful keeping up with the flow of global news these days. We can be consumed by the dark headlines.

Or we can flip the narrative by eagerly working on solutions. The world needs collaborative thinkers who can identify and solve the most pressing and vexing problems of our times.

Embracing challenges brings out the best in RIT. Let’s take just one example — Artificial Intelligence. RIT believes that the future of AI poses many ethical and safety concerns, and we are working on those. But AI is here to stay and can be used as a force for good. Right now, hundreds of RIT researchers are developing a range of applications using AI, varying from education to medical monitoring devices to deepfake detection tools. We also just launched a master’s degree program in AI. Ultimately, we expect to become an AI university and an AI community.

We are ready to write the next chapter. We are operating from a position of strength. And everyone in this room has a role to play.

It starts with people. Greatness begins with surrounding yourself with extreme talent—thinkers and creators who elevate a team. Going forward, we will need better students, better faculty … And, yes, we will even need to find better presidents …

Um, just don’t say anything to Nancy. We’re not ready to leave Liberty Hill yet!

The point is, in academia, as in many other sectors, whoever has the most talent wins. We really do want our alumni to rhetorically ask the question: “Could I get into RIT today?” That’s how we’ll know we are progressing as a university.

We already have accomplished most of the goals and objectives in our 2025 Strategic Plan. We’ve been on a continuous upward trajectory, taking smart calculated risks.

We need your help to continue this momentum. We need your ideas. We need your engagement. We need your connections … We need your vision of the future. And we are going to need resources to win.

Sometimes we can best chart our future by understanding our history. Here is just one lesson:

After vigorous debate by campus leaders and Trustees about potentially moving from downtown Rochester, a surprise $3.27 million donation came in from Grace Watson, a Rochester resident who had taken some courses downtown. Her gift in 1961 would be worth $30 million today.

Looking to move, James Gleason, chairman of the Board of Trustees, exclaimed: “Don’t get 100 acres. Buy enough land for the next 100 years.”

At the 1968 dedication address for the new campus, President Mark Ellingson urged the audience to reflect on what changes they could foresee in the future. He questioned whether the next 50 years would be as exciting as the past 50 years.

His response: “My answer is that they will be. They will be fully as spectacular, if not more so, because we are going at a constant accelerated pace.” President Ellingson then concluded with these words of wisdom and prognostication:

“I believe — with this new campus as a launching pad — that what we have seen in the past of growth and service is a bare beginning. I might liken it to the very simple airplanes of 1908 vintage in comparison to the spaceships of today. With this as a launching pad, I predict to everyone here that this institution will enter a new, exciting, and challenging era which will require the help, support, and guidance of all the men and women here today.”

I conclude be saying that we are always on to something new that is embracing and designing the future. Our amazing community of creators and innovators is shaping the world through ideas that inspire, inform, and improve lives.

Thank you all for moving this great university forward.